The South East has diversity, prosperity and opportunities that have resulted in low job vacancy rates. But many of the social problems mirror those of the big cities, writes Rowenna Davies
Stretching over 19,000km2 with a population of 8.3million, the South East is the largest region in England. Extending around London, it encompasses the large unitary authorities of Portsmouth and Oxford, as well as the county councils of East Sussex, Surrey and Buckinghamshire, offering practitioners a huge diversity of working environments, whether you’re attracted to the sea, the city or the suburbs.
Matt Dunkley, vice president of Association of Directors of Children’s Services and director of children’s services at East Sussex, spent 10 years at inner London authorities before moving to Brighton 20 years ago. “It’s a great place to be,” he says, “We’re only an hour out of London and we still get to be in the country and have a different lifestyle and sense of community. It’s just a lot easier than being in a big city – particularly if you want to start a family.”
According to Dunkley, others are starting to follow suit: “There have been times when we were haemorrhaging social workers to London, particularly managers who were disappearing for higher salaries,” he says. But in the last 12 to 18 months we’ve seen the reverse happening, and frontline workers have been coming here. In East Sussex we now have no social work vacancies – that’s almost unheard of.”
Vacancy rates have now dropped as low as 9% across the South East, largely as a result of recruitment drives that continue to make increasingly attractive offers to applicants.
According to John Dixon, executive director of adult and children’s services in West Sussex, this demonstrates the region’s ability to work together for the greater good.
“In the last three years we have seen one of the highest investments in social work in the country,” he says, “Of course the salaries have got to be competitive, but the real issue is the size of the workload and the quality of the experience we offer. We won’t give newly qualified social workers child protection cases in their first year, and we provide bursaries and return to work schemes – we value experience like gold dust.”
The South East is determined not to let this progress slip during the cuts, and is working to create efficiencies that could save jobs. The six Berkshire authorities, for example, have come together to start joint commissioning their 16-19 partnerships.
In the eastern half of the region, Hampshire, Surrey, Kent, Brighton and Hove, Medway, East and West Sussex are starting a process of joint commissioning for children’s services, IT and back office functions. If all of their proposals are given the green light, authorities estimate they can save 10% on spending across the board.
According to some directors, efficiency drives may even open up exciting new opportunities for enterprising practitioners. In West Sussex for example, social services are starting a programme of joint commissioning with the local primary care trust for services to children, particularly those who are disabled.
The pooled budget, currently standing at £164m but expected to rise to £500m, should save 30% on costs, but also help break down barriers between partner organisations.
“The region is looking at a lot of exciting new ways of working,” says Dunkley, “In particular we’re looking at focusing staff around the family and not just the child. This is partly out of economic necessity, but it’s also about children’s teams working closer with adult social care and mental health teams. Brighton and Hove is one of the latest councils to combine the heads of adult and child social care into a single post.”
Individual authorities are also continuing to be singled out for best practice. Glynis Marsh is a qualified social worker and practice learning co-ordinator at the Isle of Wight, which has recently been shortlisted for two national awards by the Department of Health.
Under her watch, the council has been nominated for a best quality practice award for keeping practitioners skilled and up to date, as well as introducing a new scheme to let trainees into prisons and gain experience with police and probation services.
She has also overseen best practice partnerships for users and carers, which have been shortlisted for giving users as young as 14 a say over the recruitment of those who will serve them.
“I moved here from the North West 10 years ago and I find it a great place to work,” says Marsh. “The strength of working on an island is that all the agencies know each other and how to work together, but you’d be surprised how much there is to do here. It is such an idyllic place and it looks so nice, but there are still a lot of drug and alcohol problems as well as child protection cases. Because tourist work is seasonal, unemployment is often high. There really is plenty for a social worker to do.”
a social worker’s view: nice place to live, but many problems to solve
Cea Francis is fostering team manager for Surrey.
After qualifying as a social worker in 1978, she worked in inner city London for almost 10 years before moving to Surrey to have children. After six years, she returned to practice in the authority and was quickly promoted to assistant team manager and then team manager.
“I was brought up in Surrey and my partner and I moved here to have space for the kids. Moving here meant we didn’t have to live up two flights of stairs above a shop; we could live in a house. Surrey has nice countryside, good schools and low crime rates. The rents are still quite high, but it is more rural and less stressful.
In terms of the type and complexities of families we work with, they are surprisingly similar to London. When I first arrived Surrey seemed so genteel I wasn’t sure what a social worker would actually do! But actually struggling families almost have it worse here, because there is less community. In London families live in the same tenant block, but the children going into care here are much more isolated. The big gaps in wealth have the same effect.
It’s a good time to come to Surrey, because we are in the middle of a very positive reorganisation. In fostering we are looking to create a new enhanced scheme specifically for the most challenging young people, particularly those who are having behavioural difficulties in school and struggling with relationships. The aim is to work with CAMHS and education services to provide them with a totally wrap-around service. We’ll also be working more closely with residential teams, being more creative with joint working and sharing the responsibility for all young people. We want to make sure that every child is in the right place, whether it’s with a foster family or a residential placement.
We don’t actually have any vacancies in the fostering team at the moment, but we are looking to increase our family support workers so we’ll be recruiting soon. Surrey is a huge authority, so there will always be a vacancy for those who want to join us.”
● The South East encompasses 19 county and unitary authorities and 55 districts, stretching around London from Kent in the East to Hampshire in the West and Milton Keynes in the North.
● The South East has the largest population of any government region in England: 8.3 million.
● In 2008 South East residents contributed £195bn to the UK economy.
● The South East has the highest number of residents in employment out of all regions in the UK. In October 2009 there were 4.15 million people in employment.
● The unemployment rate in the South East is among the lowest in Europe. The gender difference in employment rates is one of the lowest in Europe, while the employment rate of those aged 55-64 is among the highest.
● Over the decade to 2009, house prices in the South East have risen by 85%.
● Fourteen of the top 20 local authorities with the highest quality of life are located within the South East, with Elmbridge in Surrey ranking as number one for the second consecutive year.
Source: The South East England Development Agency, which works to support the region’s economic development.
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